Comments/Context: Taiji Matsue is a technologist. I say this not because he uses digital capture and Photoshop, because even the Luddites among us are doing these things in today's world. No, Matsue's work and underlying approach seem to stem from a comfort with and genuine interest in technology: in computer programming, display electronics, and cartography, and how these technologies are related to the process of image making.
We first became aware of Matsue's work a year or so ago when Paul Amador showed us several of his black and white city scenes and landscapes. In both sets of work, the surfaces are flattened out, the horizon is cropped out, the camera angle is from above or aerial, and the textures are brought into sharp focus. The traditional landscapes (if you can call them that) are very reminiscent of Frederick Sommer's shimmering shots of the desert. The urban landscapes are low contrast, topographical studies, with windows and buildings used to highlight the interlocking patterns and repetitions. These have some echoes of Lewis Baltz, or perhaps 1970s Harry Callahan.
The work in this new show builds on these earlier themes and introduces the elements of color and larger/smaller scale. The "Nest" project is derived from an idea from computer programming: the concept of nesting subroutines, allowing a programmer to build a hierarchy of detail that is called only when necessary. The "Nest" images are large images with a huge amount of detail, "hyper real" you might call them. These are works that can be taken in on one level from 10 feet, and then can be engaged intimately at the same level of sharpness right up close (think Clifford Ross). This "feature" of the pictures creates a feeling of drifting in and out, as you move up and down the scale of magnification. They're a little like playing with Google Earth, zooming in and out. The subject matter and general approach is the same as the earlier work: landscapes and urban studies, with the same cropping and camera angles, once again focused on patterns that are enhanced by this staggering level of detail.
The "Cell" series evolve these same concepts in another direction (perhaps derived from microprocessor or display architectures, or simply from spreadsheets or maps). In these images, Matsue has taken one of his standard size images and "discovered" one single "cell" 1/200th of the size of the overall negative, and then blown this small area up into a larger work. Up close, the effect is that the images are pixelated, with almost Pointillist dots of grainy color making up the magnified images. The subjects seem like ants shot from the moon (what are these tiny little people doing?).
While all of this is interesting at a technical level, the question is whether it is durable art. I found a few of the "Nest" images, particularly Leon, Mexico, to work quite well, the hive of small buildings and colors creating an all over pattern that was mesmerizing. Others in the series were less effective, and while I got the point he was making, the images weren't as compelling, or perhaps seemed too reminiscent of the work of other artists. Of the "Cell" series, overall, I found the texture and graininess of the images intriguing, as the subject matter was broken down into points of color. Again, I think there were a few winners, and a decent number of more average examples.
There is a two part interview with Taiji Matsue in conjunction with this exhibit to be found at Modern Art Obsession, here and here. Matsue's new book, Cell, is also available.
Collector's POV: Matsue's "Nest" images are being sold between $7500 and $11500 and the smaller "Cell" works are between $2000 and $4500. Since we have virtually no color in our personal collection, one of Matsue's earlier works (likely an urban landscape) would fit better for us. That said, I think there are a handful of memorable pieces here that would be worth adding to your collection, especially in the context of considering how technology (as a mindset rather than as a tool) is influencing the photography of the 21st century.
Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating scale described here)Taiji Matsue, Nest
Through December 31
Cohen Amador Gallery
41 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022